Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us on another Writer Wednesday!
This week, I have the honor of hosting a guest post from JB Riley, an author who is unpublished as of yet, but whose work we should all keep an eye out for!
Today, JB has an interesting post for us about how to incorporate alcohol into your writing! So, without further ado, here’s JB Riley!
Your character bellies up to the bar and orders a beer.
Your character has had a bad day and sits drinking whiskey in the dark.
These scenes can be part of establishing a character and moving the story along, but there is an opportunity to go much deeper. What kind of beer? How many fingers of whiskey? And – most importantly – why? Combined with other pieces of a scene, these details provides a rich world for the reader to enter.
Readers love to identify with characters, to see familiar likes, dislikes and customs. This includes their drinking habits and favorite alcoholic beverages. As writers we can use drinking – and its consequences – to further a story, place the protagonist in different situations, or reveal things about the character that he or she doesn’t realize yet. It’s fun for the reader and can be fun for the writer, too.
Cold swirled in as Jimmy paused at the doorway to stomp the snow from his boots. ‘Hey Dan,’ he yelled across the nearly empty bar, lit by a combination of Christmas lights, TV sets and assorted beer signs. ‘Start me a Guinness, will you?”
It had been so long, but if there was a day to drink, today was that day. She held the glass up and stared deep into the amber contents glowing in the light.
‘Something in your Jack Daniels?’ the bar tender asked. Jane shook her head, tossed back the double before she could think about how hard she’d worked to stay sober, and gestured for another.
How to choose what your character drinks
As always, good advice is “write what you know.” If you are fond of white wine, your character can be too. It’s easy to describe something familiar, and characters can sip chardonnay while undercover at a dinner party, or roll their eyes at a pretentious jerk who insists pinot noir is the only wine worth drinking. They can bond with a key secondary character over visiting a winery, or detect an odd taste and narrowly avoid being poisoned.
The more specific, the more fun, so long as it drives the story. Your character may order a gin and tonic…. but if you want to show a character’s pretentions, have him call his liquor. “Hendrick’s with a twist” or “Bombay Sapphire martini” can get the point across without having to flat-out write that the character is a snob. If you have firm opinions about small-batch bourbon, use them in your writing – have your protagonist argue with her cousin over which Woodford Reserve is the best.
Giving your character a signature drink can telegraph plot points further along the story. Your protagonist can go to meet with a source who always drinks Budweiser, only to find him sitting on his couch holding a glass of Dewar’s scotch. The inconsistency is a way to telegraph change (or danger) to the protagonist and reader alike.
What if you don’t drink?
First of all, your character doesn’t have to, either. This can be a quirk (think the heroic cowboy who only drinks sarsaparilla), a hard-fought choice (club soda with lime is the friend of alcoholics everywhere), or a decision based on religion, family experience or any other reason. Also the character can drink espresso, or tea, or another signature choice.
If your character doesn’t ordinarily imbibe, show the character’s reasoning if he or she decides to drink – especially if your story calls for a non-drinker to get drunk. A key secondary character in one of my stories-in-progress has been sober for many years, but something pushes him into a massive bender as part of his test of faith. It might not be fair to him but it creates dramatic tension, as well as barriers for the protagonist.
Fitting booze into your scenario and location
Sometimes a character’s choice of drink is proscribed by the situation. For example, if you’re writing a Victorian novel your characters probably won’t be tossing back Jager Bombs, but might be sipping absinthe. Historically accurate booze can help keep the reader within the story; by reinforcing the time and place. For example, the Scots and Irish have been drinking whiskey and whisky – respectively – for a very long time and if your Victorian novel has scenes in Northern Ireland then Bushmill’s (the world’s oldest licensed distillery) could help set a scene.
Keep in mind if you’re writing high fantasy: there are inherent limits to your characters’ choice of drinks– wine, ale, mead and tea have been around for thousands of years and many cultures, but your characters have to be in a place that can access grapes, grain, honey and tea plants. Traders and other secondary characters who travel through the world can bring exotic drinks into the setting while passing along gossip or information. Make up booze if you’d like.
Additionally bars, taverns, inns and road houses exist in almost all settings and serve as critical junctures where your characters can pursue leads, seek shelter, meet other characters, or simply unwind. All these locations provide some sort of alcohol. Think through what kind of alcohol, and what it says about the bar, its location and proprietor, or who frequents it.
You can also ‘break rules’ to draw attention. Remember, a character’s choices inform both the character and the reader. Think about pirates – yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, right? Your pirate captain may prefer brandy, mescal, or anything that transports well in small casks. He might drink only grappa, because it’s revealed in Chapter 12 he was conscripted from Italy as a young man and wants to keep one small memory of home alive as he sails the Southern Ocean.
Have fun with the concept. Writers can use drinking to detail their characters, transition between scenes, provide information, and help the reader identify or sympathize with a protagonist or antagonist. You do not need a deep background in alcohol and drinking – just a bit of creativity. Slainte!
A long-time resident of Chicago, JB Riley works by day writing and editing technical proposals, but has loved speculative fiction ever since discovering The Chronicles of Narnia at Age 8. When not drinking beer or cleaning up pet hair, JB loves to cook (often intentionally with beer, unintentionally with pet hair), read and travel.